The Prime Minister had premiers and chief ministers bang to rights this week when he accused them of playing politics with issues such as coronavirus border controls. Playing politics is what politicians do. It's not necessarily merely populist to exercise extreme caution with your own electorate's lives.
We are so used to being disappointed by our elected representatives - and there is a lot to be disappointed about - that accusations of being motivated by political considerations rather than pure altruism or some abstract "best" policy is taken to suggest impropriety or unworthy behaviour. All the more so when it appears that the immediate object or intended effect of some policy decision is to belittle political rivals, to reward political cronies, or to punish people who are thought to be objects, rightly or wrongly, of the government's displeasure.
Yet the very essence of politics involves different philosophies of the ideal society and how it is best achieved, different views about priorities, and different opinions about how scarce resources should be shared around the community. Honest people can genuinely differ about the priorities, or about the best strategies and tactics for achieving them. Being a politician involves a constant weighing up of public opinion, and a focus on gaining or holding power, because if one cannot get majority support at critical moments such as elections, one cannot exercise power at all. It also involves compromise and debate.
It is worth bearing this in mind during the arguments about lockdowns, state chauvinism, and obstacles in the way of reopening an economy and social processes that have been battered as never before in most people's lifetimes. To the fury of the federal government, most premiers have made their own local decisions - guided by their own advice and by their own political considerations - about access and entry into their states and territories. Their individual responses have impaired the implementation of national policies designed to get the economy moving. One of the justifications, of course, has been the fact that the incidence and prevalence of coronavirus in local communities varies.
Despite irritation about some controls, reduced zeal about following some rules, or anger at the bossiness of the enforcers, most people have seemed to recognise the benefits of caution. On the other hand, some have seen a creeping totalitarianism in some of the controls, and have come to fear separate agendas - perhaps of constitutional coup. Others doubt that individual tactics were best adapted for the result intended - the locking down on public housing towers, for example, or of border blockades when only major cities have had big hotspots. Some of the arguments - maintained with fervour by News Corp newspapers, as well as conservative politicians - seem to have merged into conspiracy theories, including about vaccines, microchip implants and the secret agendas of rich people. One partisan aspect has seen the attacks focus on Labor premiers and chief ministers, ignoring the fact that a coalition premier in NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, is on the one hand railing against blockades on her state by other states, while maintaining the toughest, and arguably most unreasonable restrictions on entry into NSW from Victoria - unless entrants are of the political class.
Can Morrison and Frydenberg get the Commonwealth's act together to the point where a majority of the population will grudgingly accept, 18 months from now, that they did a fairly good job?
Initially, Scott Morrison was imaginative in trying to co-opt the premiers and chief ministers into a united response. He created a so-called national cabinet, with shared information (as well as his compulsive secrecy and resistance to any type of transparency). He worked hard to achieve consensus, including, initially at least, biting his tongue to avoid criticising even premiers going only partly the way with him. As the pandemic has become more local in severity, as each of the premiers has gone their own way on preventive measures, and as some of the criticism has focused on the Commonwealth, he and his ministers have become more and more willing to criticise the approach of individual premiers, and more and more exasperated about their standing in the way of social and economic revival.
Although the Commonwealth probably has all of the constitutional power it needs to completely take over the management of the disease response, as well as the reopening of the economy, Morrison recognises both that the states have most of the practical powers and resources - over, for example, hospitals, schools, public movement and social spacing - and that the Commonwealth has, over the years, shared some of its powers - for example over biosecurity controls - with other governments. Most of the administrative fiascoes - think cruise ships allowing passengers to disembark without health checks, hotel quarantine arrangements, and aged care institutions and nursing homes - have been predictable. They were responses to overlapping jurisdictions, a lack of clear authority and accountability and, sometimes, simple human error. Yet the blame-dodging and blame shifting have been absolutely classic - not least when it has come from Commonwealth authorities who thought they could exercise their powers through others without being responsible for the results.
One can take it that Morrison and his Treasurer John Frydenberg are perfectly genuine in their belief that more can be done, right now, to get the economy growing again, even as there are still some hot spots and second wave cases. They fear too that the longer the economy is in lockdown, the harder, and more expensive, it will be to get it on its feet. Morrison has always been looking ahead to see past the immediate impact of the pandemic to the measures necessary to start growth again. He has had to acknowledge that continuing cases in some environments, particularly Victoria, have required local responses, but is now very impatient.
All things being equal, Morrison does not have to go to the polls until 2022 - more than 18 months away. By then, the pandemic should be largely over, with members of the public regarding it as a very significant event, but as one in the rear vision mirror. Most likely Morrison and his team will be judged by voters not on their management of the pandemic, or their fairly nimble efforts to junk debt and deficit obsessions into imaginative, if ideological focused efforts, to maintain jobs or to upgrade the welfare response. Indeed, if the pandemic is largely over, so will be most of the emergency welfare measures and government may well be back to ordinary tight management of public spending, and its pursuit of cultural wars. But Morrison and Frydenberg will have to wear criticism of the economic recovery in action. They will be held to account for any failure of employment levels to reach the levels of 2019. For failure to create new jobs when the pandemic effectively wiped out businesses. They will probably be blamed for any lack of imagination in creating new jobs or jobs in sectors still suffering from the aftereffects.
If new work modes develop - for example permitting more work from home - those unable to participate will feel betrayed. While the government has not promised everyone a post-pandemic job, many with previously good employment records will feel that this is implicit in the deal, given how the economy was put into a coma. Some will be angry they lost jobs and income while not being particularly at risk of infection or death. Other groups, or particular industries with strong lobbying power, were showered with incentives, grants and encouragement.
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The states and territories, by contrast, will share much of the glory of coming out of the pandemic with a remarkably low strike rate, compared with similar countries overseas. Morrison and federal ministers also deserve a lot of credit, but some of that is being diminished by the logical extensions of the lockdown regime as new cases emerge. I expect the premiers will suffer little political pain if recovery doesn't happen, is patchy or too slow. It will be Morrison and Frydenberg who are blamed.
Although state and territory governments have themselves, with Commonwealth encouragement and support established job creation and stimulus plans to revive their local economies, it is likely that state administrations will not bear the brunt of any blame for failure. This is because the economy has been treated largely as a national problem.
But there are other reasons for the Morrison government to dread its task. Recession statistics this week showed that many people used money pumped in through the welfare system to pay off debt, rather than on immediate consumer spending. Indeed, private saving is at record levels. This is not good news for a recovery, because it reflects pessimism about a quick revival, and continuing insecurity about jobs. This is the usual paradox. On the one hand it is prudent for people to save and seek to reduce their debt. On the other hand, a speedy revival demands that people spend, spend and spend, sopping up excess supplies, creating new types of demand, and stimulating businesses to invest and to put on staff. If new higher levels of private savings do not translate into new investment, the growth could be further curtailed. All the more so when this uninspired government is not itself investing, buying new things, or creating new jobs. A quarter of the economy - the public sector - is not geared for recovery. In the government's strategy, job subsidies and higher unemployment benefits would taper off as government money flowed instead to the private sector in job-creating activities. But experience has shown two particular challenges that threaten this concept.
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First, contracting out to the private sector is now known to be less effective than when the services come through the public sector. The most obvious examples are in aged care, in disability care, and in community-based public health programs. In many cases, privatised services were unable to adapt quickly to changing demands. This is not necessarily to say that public sector performance was always exemplary: indeed what we have seen has shown how hollowed out the public service has become. But with health care, education and welfare services, the public sector has shown a better capacity to mobilise resources quickly, to adapt to change and to respond to direction. This does not mean that recovery requires a bloated public sector - least of all at the administrative and managerial level. But it has become quite clear that contracting out public functions - in effect taking old public service jobs into the private sector, or the non-profit sector - has reduced the quality and quantity of service available to people in need. It has also reduced choice, and led to a reduced level of innovation, professionalism and respect for human rights and dignity.
As importantly, the Morrison government, and perhaps Treasury and the public service generally, seem to lack the imagination or experience in quickly building up and managing labour market programs. The more so when we want actual outputs rather than pretend activity thus giving the community extra goods and services as well as income for those out of work. It is now 30 years since the early 1990s recession caused the Keating government to develop and implement job-creating schemes such as Working Nation. The public service devised it had the experience of similar schemes from the early 1970s, while many people in state and local government had bottom drawers full of wish lists of considered and costed projects able to be quickly put into action when there was an economic downturn.
The public servants who led this 30 years ago are now all retired. Their expertise and experience were not replaced, and, in effect, there is hardly anyone at Commonwealth level with the ready background to take charge of such projects. That is why so many urgent action programs - bushfire or natural disaster recovery, for example, end up being put in the charge of military or police personnel. This is not necessarily because their prior experience has qualified them as such, so much as they have the sort of significant background in logistics and project management the public service has let go. There will be some who will claim that the deskilling and hollowing out reflected the discovery that the private sector was more efficient and cheaper than the traditional public service. That was a fervent conviction never much based on evidence: most areas made the subject of wholesale contracting out ended up as expensive and inefficient cash cows run for the benefit of close government cronies. Thus, for example, government legal services are these days far more expensive, but of lower quality, than before; the sale of government-owned buildings and rental from the private sector was a financial disaster costing the Commonwealth billions in the longer term. The closure of bodies such as the Commonwealth Employment Service proved to be integral to the modern mindless theory that welfare for those categorised as undeserving should become progressively more mechanical, grinding, coercive, arbitrary and punitive.
Can Morrison and Frydenberg get the Commonwealth's act together to the point where a majority of the population will grudgingly accept, 18 months from now, that they did a fairly good job? They have unlimited sums at their disposal: will they restore prosperity, security and happiness to the economy? Or will their personal limitations and lack of imagination cruel all the chances for Australia to emerge as a better, more connected, society? Perhaps that is why the alibis and the scapegoats are being prepared in advance.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com